Whether you are a newcomer to United Methodism, a longtime member, or a passerby looking askance, these days it is obvious there is a lot of controversy going on in The United Methodist Church.
The following are ~1000 word attempts to describe the current state of The UMC in a succinct manner that admittedly over-simplifies things with broad brush strokes. Nonetheless, it will be a useful set of primers for people to enter the conversation. Think of these as the Ghosts of Methodism Past, Present, and Future, and this article on the Present is sobering indeed.
- The Past: Power & Polity versus People & Places (LINK)
- The Present: In the Meantime and the Mean Time (LINK)
- The Future: Avoiding the Fundamentalist Future Set Before Both Sides (LINK)
The UMC is stuck “In the Meantime”
Since the delay of the 2020 General Conference, the United Methodist Church has been unable to gather due to COVID-19 concerns, but also because of intentional choices by our executive leadership. This has had serious ramifications for the viability and witness of our denomination.
The United Methodist Church is structured like the United States government, with three branches. And like the US government at many times in history, all three branches are not functioning optimally for the good of the people.
- Executive Branch: Bishops and General Agencies
- As of January 1, 2022, instead of 66 active bishops serving The UMC, there will be only 54. Those in left-out episcopal areas will be “additional appointments” to already-serving bishops or appointments to retired bishops. Several bishops have also delayed their own retirements, serving beyond their expectation. You can see the executive leadership is very stretched at the moment: 34 active bishops in America with 53 Annual Conferences.
- As well, General Agencies have been unable to fill empty director seats because the juridictional conferences have not met to assign the replacements. Fewer directors means fewer wisdom and energy in their boardrooms. They’ve also cut staff, including positions that benefit BIPOC ministries and missions.
- However, instead of calling for jurisdictional meetings to elect new bishops and executive board membership, the Council of Bishops has rebuffed appeals by democratically elected delegates to call those meetings. Because of this, the executive branch of The UMC has shrank even as its expectations continue, especially to “adapt everything” to COVID-shaped ministry.
- Legislative Branch: General and Jurisdictional Conferences.
- Make no mistake: the delay of General Conference 2020 was the right call. However, as shown above, the delay is unprecedented in that it doesn’t allow the usual processes of accountability and action and prophetic witness to take place in those gatherings, much less debate the Protocol.
- Even in the progressive Western Jurisdiction, a planned jurisdictional conference where we would have voted on 4 substantial reforms of the Western Jurisdiction has not been called in November as previously told to delegates and I’m told it will now be well into 2022. Even then, there’s no Disciplinary guarantee the reforms will even get a hearing until regular 2022 gatherings after the 2022 General Conference.
- Judicial Branch: The Judicial Council
- There’s a very good argument that because GC hasn’t replenished the member terms that ended, the Judicial Council no longer has a quorum, and thereby cannot issue any judgments. Judging by their lack of high-impact cases on their dockets, I think they know this and are choosing cases of lower concern.
- Even if that were not so, the Council of Bishops has not forwarded to the Judicial Council any requests for declaratory decisions about whether called Jurisdictional Conferences can elect bishops. The Council can’t give The UMC clarity because nothing is being sent to them.
By the above summary, the UMC is truly stuck, but only half of the blame lies with COVID-19 delays and deferrals. The rest lies with the bishops who refuse to allow the rest of the UMC to respond by their pocket veto of jurisdictional leadership.
The WCA saved themselves “In the Mean Time”
As we named last time, progressives and traditionalists are locked in a stalemate with neither party able to achieve their goals. To remedy this, Traditionalists like the Wesleyan Covenant Association are seeking passage of the Protocol (read more here) that would net them $25 million and an exodus of property and endowments to jumpstart their breakaway denomination “The Global Methodist Church.” No other schism of Protestantism (PCA, ACNA, etc) has begun with such an influx of cash, and Traditionalists in the UMC are determined to be the first–by hook or crook.
While the UMC is stuck in neutral, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, free from 2+ centuries of denominational accountability and episcopal oversight, has held in-person gatherings at annual conferences and on global missions trips (and few with masks, as judged by the live-streamed content). Freed from having to figure out local church ministry under COVID like the rest of us, traditionalist staff persons have been able to jetset and recruit and fundraise without restriction.
This lobbying effort has yielded some claimed successes. The WCA has taken advantage of the delay and the inaction by the bishops to lobby and prop up the Protocol, which would get them $25 million dollars. The North Alabama WCA Chapter believes if the vote was in May 2020 as expected, the Protocol would have failed. Now, they have much more confidence.
The delay of the General Conference has saved The WCA from losing at their own political game, and now it is anyone’s guess whether the WCA propaganda campaign for the Protocol will tip the scales.
Losses of clergy and churches
So that’s the top-level view. What about the rest of the church?
“The Great Resignation” has definitely taken effect in the clergy. I’m still waiting for an empirical study, but the number of young clergy and clergywomen on my friend lists that are leaving ministry is incredibly disturbing. All with great reasons, but the aggregate seems larger than in previous years. Add to that the early retirements and denominational uncertainty stunting young clergy recruitment, and there’s a huge stress on conferences to recruit, retain, and deploy clergy. Conservative conferences take this crisis as an opportunity to appoint baptist pastors to their churches even as they continue to put roadblocks in front of progressive lifelong Methodists (although as a former Oklahoman, this isn’t a new thing!).
Entire churches are also “resigning.” In 2020, UMNews and Christianity Today report that 51 churches left The UMC. While they report a smaller number for midway through 2021, an October 2021 summary compiled from annual conference reports by Tara Barnes with United Methodist Women counts 117 church disaffiliations in 2021: twice as many as 2020, which itself was the high water mark in recent years.
While not all disaffiliations were traditionalist (multiple progressive churches left New England in 2021, for example), it is odd how some of those exiting congregations are large benefactors of the Wesleyan Covenant Association: it’s almost like they want the smaller churches to stay in to tilt the scales, while the WCA insiders themselves get out before the calculus changes.
In short, while finances and institutions continue, local churches and pastors have borne the brunt of COVID-19 even as traditionalist groups lobby for the money, almost as if COVID doesn’t impact their everyday life the same way as everyone else.
As a progressive who believes in the institution of The United Methodist Church and that it deserves a chance to be a more just church through serious reform, it’s important that we are clear-eyed when we look at what’s going on in The UMC right now.
While the first summary looked at how we got where we are, it’s important to see how COVID-shaped decisions TODAY are threatening The UMC at every level–and giving the WCA the ability to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
In our next article, we’ll look at the future arc of United Methodism–and one way how we can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and present for a great future for everyone.
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